The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Myths and Realities: Earmarks

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Myth:  Earmarks are needed to get things done in Congress.

Reality:  Earmarks are not the answer to mitigating the extreme partisanship that exists in Washington and are have nothing to do with getting things done. According to a May 9, 2016 Congressional Quarterly article, since fiscal year (FY) 2002, Congress completed its spending bills an average of 91 days late in non-election years and 144 days late in election years. Stopgap measures to fund the government until the appropriations bills could be passed were required in 57 percent of these years. Beginning in fiscal year 2006, which covers five years before the adoption of the earmark moratorium and eight years thereafter, under both Democratic and Republican control, Congress never passed all appropriations bills on time. In FYs 2011 and 2013, there was a full-year continuing appropriation, which may occur again for FY 2018.

Myth:  Earmarks can be controlled and will not lead to corruption since the makeup of Congress has changed and the process will be more transparent.

Reality: The first comprehensive compilation of pork-barrel spending was contained in the 1991 Congressional Pig Book, which had 546 projects costing $3.1 billion. A 1996 memorandum from then-Speaker Newt Gingrich asked Appropriations Committee members, “Are there any Republican members who could be severely hurt by the bill or need a specific district item in the bill?” This politicization of earmarks led to an explosion of spending, from $12.5 billion in the 1996 Pig Book to a record $29 billion in earmarks in the 2006 Pig Book. The 2005 highway bill included $24 billion in earmarks, including the infamous bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. Members of Congress and lobbyists went to jail as a result of earmarks. As former Sen. Tom Coburn said, earmarks are “inherently corrupt. Earmarks were abused as a form of currency to buy and sell the votes of politicians and to reward political supporters.” There is simply no way to assure this will not occur again.

Myth:  Earmarks are distributed equally among members of Congress.

Reality: This is perhaps the most egregious claim by earmark proponents. In the 111th Congress, when the names of members of Congress who obtained earmarks were included in the appropriations bills, the 81 House and Senate appropriators, or 15 percent of Congress, had 51 percent of the earmarks and 61 percent of the money. For those members of Congress who do not sit on those committees or otherwise have seniority, they will not share equally in the earmark booty.

Myth:  Earmarks do not usurp higher priority spending, are consistent with agency and state review and planning processes, and comply with statutory criteria.

Reality:  A September 7, 2007 Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General (IG) report demonstrates the fallacy of those claims. Three DOT agencies received 7,760 earmarks in FY 2006, of which 7,724, or 99 percent, “either were not subject to the agencies’ review and selection processes or bypassed the states’ normal planning and programming processes.” In one of the smaller earmarked programs, worth more than $14 million, 16 of 65, or 24.6 percent of the projects failed to “meet statutory criteria and would not have received funding if not for Section 113 of DOT’s appropriations law that allows funding for earmarks that do not meet the statutory requirements of a program.” In other words, the appropriators overrode the authorizing language that had been included in the highway bill that was overwhelmingly approved by Congress one year earlier.

Myth:  Earmarks do not cost any additional money.

Reality:  Earmarks disrupt the normal process at federal agencies and siphon money from other priorities that Congress has authorized. In his May/June 2009 article, Professor James Savage examined the impact of earmarks at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and found that there are significant political, budget, and programmatic costs both in Congress and in the agency associated with earmarks, which caused both congressional and ONR staff to spend time on earmarks rather than other legislative and administrative tasks. The DOT IG report noted that earmarks in the 2005 highway bill for three Federal Highway Administration programs exceeded authorized funding levels, resulting in across-the-board cuts of between 3.4 percent and 16.4 percent, without any information about how to make the cuts.

Myth:  Earmarks can be defined in a manner that allows them to be provided on merit-based criteria.

Reality:  Earmarks never accounted for more than 1 percent of discretionary spending. That of course means that the other 99 percent was distributed according to the statutory authority and merit-based criteria that Congress provided to federal agencies. Perhaps those members who believe the bureaucrats don’t know what they are doing wish to earmark every single penny of federal funds and simply dispense with the executive branch.

Myth:  Earmarks are a proper use of Congress’s Article I powers.

Reality:  The Constitution gives Congress the authority to appropriate money; but that authority is not unlimited. Alexander Hamilton took the most expansive view of federal power, but even he believed that power was limited “to matters of ‘general’ or national welfare, not merely local or regional welfare," so even he would have been surprised to see earmarks for indoor rainforests and teapot museums. President James Monroe said it best: Federal money should be limited “to great national works only, since if it were unlimited it would be liable to abuse and might be productive of evil.”

The proper way to “restore” Article I authority is to reduce the number of unauthorized programs and conduct far more oversight of existing expenditures. For example, moving forward with consideration of H.R. 2174, the Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act would begin the process of authorizing $310 billion worth of programs and agencies, some of which have not been reauthorized since the 1970s. Earmarks are not only a lazy way to get around that process; they also can never replace it entirely.

Myth:  Earmarks do not have any political consequences and will not cause the loss of the Republican majority in the House.

Reality:  For those with short memories or who wish to ignore history, Republicans lost the House of Representatives in 2006 following the record $29 billion in appropriations earmarks and the $24 billion in highway bill earmarks in 2005, including the infamous Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. Regarding Republican efforts to restore earmarks before the 2018 elections, Democrats are likely thinking, “Go ahead. Make our majority.” Just talking about bringing earmarks back could be enough to turn off millions of taxpayers.

Myth:  Earmarks will not be earmarks if they are called congressionally directed spending.

Reality: Earmarks were identified as “congressionally directed spending” at the end of each appropriations bill between fiscal years 2008-2010, when they included the names of the members of Congress who obtained the projects. Pork is pork, both now and then; it cannot be dressed up as something else.

Myth:  Earmarks are not as evil as Lord Voldemort.

Reality:  Yes, they are.

 

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